Faith is a funny thing. It seems to be important to every culture in every era. Atheism is never a default position, and even when it is formally declared as such (Soviet Russia, for example), ideology replaces religion as the faith object for the citizen-believers.
My own relationship with faith is unambiguous. I am an atheist in the most literal sense of the term, though without much in the way of the social militancy often associated with atheism. (In casual conversation I often describe myself as "agnostic" for this reason.) To me, the very idea of God is so self-evidently a combination of wishful thinking and circular reasoning that He deserves no more of my allegiance than the idea of a Flat Earth. I look at the Christian God the way Christians might look at Amon-Ra, the Egyptian sun god. I don't require religious faith to possess a moral compass, to find motivation for ethical behavior, or have a purpose in life. Being a thoughtful human being is sufficient for those needs. To my view, how could it be otherwise?
At the very same time, I am a First Amendment absolutist. Freedom of religion means freedom from religion, for me personally, but I whole-heartedly support the right of everyone around me to believe what they will about the universe. Your church is just as important to me as my lack of church. I only ask the same respect in return.
tillyjane sometimes talks about "bumper sticker theology." If I could have bumper sticker secularism, there's two things I'd frame in those terms.
Just because you believe it doesn't mean it's true.
Faith doesn't have to make you stupid.
The first has to do with what I've written before, about the difference between empirical truth and mythic truth. If you believe in personal salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that's a mythic truth. It's true for you, that idea holding whatever spiritual and personal significance you assign to it, but it's not truth on a par with Newton's Laws. It can't be demonstrated, tested, falsified or validated. That's what we call it faith.
Am I ignorant of the profound role Christianity has played in forming Western society and motivating American society today? Of course not. I'm not a fool. This tradition has made me who I am today, even (or especially) within my immediate family. My late Grandfather Lake was a minister in the Disciples of Christ. I respect his faith, and the faith of the past two millenia of our cultural history, but that's a respect for his right to that faith, and his sincerity in that faith. Respect doesn't mean I share it, or even take it seriously. Nor does it mean I should.
Yet millions of Christians in this country believe things as part of their faith which they then interpret as social truths which must be codified in law and taught in public schools. That homosexuality is a sin, for example. (Somehow they always forget God also hates shrimp, and forbids the wearing of mixed fabrics. The old boy has a lot of rules — ask any Orthodox Jew.) The alleged evils of evolution are another example. Even when dressed up in the politesse of Intelligent Design, Creationism is an article of faith, without a shred of empirical truth.
Which leads me to how faith can make you stupid. Creationism as a literal idea is just silly on the face of it. We have senses to perceive the world and intelligence to interpret what those sense perceive. If you believe God gave us both eyesight and mother wit, why would He be so petty as to lay tricks for His believers by leavening the entire world and the universe around it with countless proofs of the age of our cosmos and its progress across time? Even more, why would He present us with a banquet of evidence, then condemn us to eternal damnation for using our senses and intelligence to interpret that evidence?
I feel very, very sorry for anyone who believes in a God so limited in scope as that. That's God as grade school bully, theology that says "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
It's easy to pick at evolution and Creationism, because Creationism is such arrant nonsense that's only tenable if you take a very specific interpretation of the Bible as your primary evidence about the nature of the universe, while shutting your eyes and your mind to the world around you. That's a choice of faith, and I respect people's right to that choice, but I'll always be baffled at why anyone would stunt themselves so, and angry that people stunt their children so. I could choose to blind myself, but why would I? Even more, why would I choose to blind my child?
The Creationist's answer is to dress up their mythic truth in a few of the trappings of science and try to start an argument. By the rules of our culture, they win either way — if scientists engage them, they have the standing of intellectual discourse. If scientists ignore them, they have the standing of victimization. But Intelligent Design is science the way a cardboard box with a big "7" and four wheels scrawled on it is a race car. It mimics some of the nominal aspects of the real thing, but works only inside the imagination of the believer.
One of the most pernicious memes in Intelligent Design is "teach the controversy." That plays very well with American notions of fairness and balance. "There are two sides to every question" is engrained into us all. Actually, that's about as true as "Don't judge a book by its cover." Most book buyers judge a book by its cover. Most questions have a whole variety of sides, while a few have only side.
Say I decide that kenscholes is a space alien. He's come to wreak havoc on our culture and pave the way for our new overlords from the planet Vader. I accuse him of this at conventions. I write letters to Locus and The Oregonian. I found a Discoverment Institute to work out the details of the accusation, issue press releases, insert myself in the news cycle. That's not a controversy, except in the social sense of the term. If I raised enough hell, people will talk about it, but it doesn't mean my position has a shred of intellectual credibility or empirical reality.
The only way to deal with idiocy like me claiming that kenscholes is a space alien is to ignore me. Interviewing me, allowing me to file complaints and lawsuits about the havoc he is wreaking on our Earth, even assigning any credibility to my claims simply because they are well-articulated and contain reasonable-seeming proofs I have made up — all of that assigns me the substance and standing which I don't deserve. Likewise Intelligent Design — to even engage with them at all is to grant their pseudoscience dignity. It's intellectually identical to asking astrologers to comment on astronomical theory.
"kenscholes is an alien" is precisely the kind of controversy that Intelligent Design advocates want to teach. Their own often-deliberate misunderstandings of evolutionary theory combine with their sense of faith to lead them to this position. Bully for them. There's a Flat Earth Society as well. Faith-based rationalization doesn't belong in the courts of reason. It's mythic truth masquerading as an empirical truth, and not even doing a very good job of it. Their clever use of public relations and the language of scientific discourse inserts them into the public consciousness. It has nothing to do with scientific controversy.
Millions of people of faith believe it does. When they believe that, when they pressure school boards to make changes to curriculum, when they pressure lawmakers and judges, they damage society and interests of everyone in it, including their own. As a simple example, these people expect quality medical care derived from the same clear-eyed understanding of biology they are working vigorously to undermine.
I don't think very many Christians would choose prayer over a good antibiotic in the face of a vicious staph infection, yet that's the choice so many on the Right are trying to make for society. There may not be atheists in the foxholes, but there's a hell of a lot of sudden converts to empirical science in the hospitals.
Faith of this kind has a profoundly deleterious effect on politics as well. Unquestioning adherence to counterfactual tenets, absolute acceptance of upward authority, eternal punishment for those who stray from the righteous path — these are not the stuff of political compromise. If the underpinnings of your faith require you to reject the evidence of your senses and the workings of your mind in favor of received wisdom, what kind of voter will you be? What kind of leader would you be?
For one, you'd be President Bush. You'd be among the surprisingly large number of Republican voters (and Fox News viewers) who still believe we found nuclear weapons in Iraq. You'd be one of the bloggers who denounces every negative report about Iraq because the partisan news media aren't telling "the real story." In short, you'd be one of those people who place their political faith ahead of the inconvenience of actual facts. Global warming? A liberal myth. The Iraqi resistance? A few dead enders and foreign fighters. Evolution? A flawed theory used by anti-theists to corrupt our children.
I have a profound respect for faith, but the confusion between faith and truth, combined with the self-induced blindness brought on by faith, are among the most dangerous forces affecting our society today. The world is too large, too interconnected, with stakes too high, for simple answers that don't do nuance. And standing where I do, outside the community of faith, I don't make much distinction between the questioning faith of a Jesuit or a Reform rabbi or a Buddhist reverend master and the unreasoning, closed faith of an Evangelical Bush voter deep in an all-white Red State town with more churches than bars. Mythic truth is mythic truth. Society lives in the real world, and the laws of nature don't look to scripture for their guidance.